Hearne Prisoner of War Camp

During World II, Nazis not only threatened Europe, but held some influence in East Texas where thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) were held. During the war, the United States held nearly half a million Axis POWs and Texas housed roughly ten percent of these prisoners, more than any other state. One of the biggest POW camps in Texas, Camp Hearne, held approximately 4,800 prisoners. The biggest security breach in the United States POW program, and one of the best-documented instances of Nazi control, occurred at Camp Hearne.

When 275,000 members Germany's Afrika Korps surrendered in Tunisia on May 13, 1943, the Allies needed a place to hold them. Camp Hearne received some of these first prisoners on June 3, 1943. Life was relatively good at Camp Hearne where food was usually plentiful and prisoners enjoyed leisure activities, employment, and education. The United States tried to make life as good as possible for the POWs for two reasons: to ensure good treatment for American POWs and to win the hearts of the German prisoners who would return to rebuild a post-war Europe. Many POWs enjoyed Camp Hearne. However, some prisoners made life difficult for the guards and many of their fellow POWs.

Though most POWs at Camp Hearne fought for Hitler's Third Reich, not all remained loyal Nazis. But those who did stay faithful to Hitler controlled and intimidated the other prisoners through propaganda, an underground newsletter called Die Mahnung (The Admonition), and secret disciplinary hearings. The Nazi prisoners even infiltrated the POW postal service in order to censor anti-Nazi POW mail, send illegal messages and track disloyal German POWs throughout the United States.

In December 1943, the Nazi POWs punished one such disloyal German POW, Hugo Krauss. Krauss had immigrated to New York as a child but returned to Germany in 1939. He joined the German army, surrendered in 1943 and returned to the United States as a Camp Hearne POW. Camp officials made Krauss an interpreter because of his proficiency in English. Krauss reported clandestine activity to the American guards and openly criticized the Third Reich. The Nazi POWs decided to punish him and shortly after lights out, seven men beat Krauss with pipes, sticks and boards laden with nails. The attackers cracked Krauss's skull, broke both arms and caused multiple lacerations. No one in his barracks dared come to his aid and Krauss died six days later. Before Camp Hearne closed in 1946, one of the attackers, Günther Meisel, confessed to the crime. Meisel and four others went to prison for the attack, but President Harry Truman paroled them in 1949 and they returned to Germany.

Sadly, many POWs camps throughout the United States experienced similar incidents of Nazi abuse and intimidation. The United States POW program never found a way to stop the violence and power of the Nazi POWs. Ironically, the greatest threat to POW safety came from other POWs. Thousands of miles from World War II battlefields and concentration camps, a Nazi presence existed, even in East Texas.

Images

Replica Barracks

Replica Barracks

In 2010, Friends of Camp Hearne opened a visitor center and exhibit at the historic site of Camp Hearne. Visitors can explore the ruins of the camp, the replica barracks, and an exhibit of hundreds of POW artifacts, either donated or excavated at the site. The exhibit depicts the daily life of the World War II POWs at Camp Hearne. | Source: Camp Hearne Exhibit & Visitor Center View File Details Page

Hermann Kaiser's Basic Personnel Record

Hermann Kaiser's Basic Personnel Record

Told to stay home when the POWs arrived, instead hundreds of Hearne locals lined the roadway to Camp Hearne to catch a glimpse of Hitler's finest. Still wearing the same bloodstained clothes they had surrendered in weeks before, the POWs marched to Camp Hearne. Camp officials created a Basic Personnel Record, like this one, for each POW upon their arrival. | Source: Camp Hearne Exhibit & Visitor Center View File Details Page

POWs at Work

POWs at Work

Many POWs at Camp Hearne worked for local farmers. POWs earned 10 cents per hour, paid in coupons redeemable at the camp canteen. The United States Department of Agriculture produced "how to pick cotton" leaflets, since most POWs had never seen a cotton field. Most farmers appreciated the cheap labor and had good relationships with the POWs. Hearne relied so much on POW labor that the United States delayed repatriation of some POWs at the end of the war, in order to finish the harvest. | Source: Michael Waters, Texas A&M View File Details Page

POW Play

POW Play

Prisoners in each compound of Camp Hearne modified existing structures into theaters that could hold audiences of 200 people. Compound 3 had the most elaborate theater, complete with an orchestra pit and tiered stadium seating. Each compound had a theater troupe and put on plays and operas with props, scenery, costumes, makeup and wigs. The prisoners advertised productions with handmade posters. | Source: Camp Hearne Exhibit & Visitor Center View File Details Page

Burg Schwanstein

Burg Schwanstein

Prisoners passed the time at Camp Hearne listening to music, playing sports, and doing arts and crafts. The German POWs seen here created a waist-high replica castle, complete with a moat and waterfalls. Other POWs built soccer fields, elaborate fountains, painted, and created wooden or metal handicrafts. With plenty of leisure time and food available to the POWs, many locals referred to Camp Hearne as the "Fritz Ritz." | Source: Camp Hearne Exhibit & Visitor Center View File Details Page

Camp Hearne Orchestra

Camp Hearne Orchestra

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's military orchestra surrendered with the Afrika Korps in Tunisia. Camp Hearne housed all the members of the orchestra with their instruments. In 1944, the orchestra refused to play for an Independence Day celebration with the United States flag waving behind them. The Camp Commander removed the flag, resulting in controversy. | Source: Camp Hearne Exhibit & Visitor Center View File Details Page

Certificate of Achievement

Certificate of Achievement

Nearby universities offered correspondence courses in math, English, agriculture, stenography and other subjects to the POWs at Camp Hearne. Billed as intellectual diversion for the POWs, many courses bordered on indoctrination, a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Several POWs returned to Europe with diplomas for classes taken in American government and democracy. | Source: Camp Hearne Exhibit & Visitor Center View File Details Page

German Postal Unit

German Postal Unit

The process of inspecting POW mail slowed delivery times, with the average POW letter taking six months to arrive. To ease the burden, the United States established a German Postal Unit at Camp Hearne. Here German POWs helped sort and forward all POW mail. | Source: Camp Hearne Exhibit and Visitor Center View File Details Page

German Postal Unit

German Postal Unit

The worst breach of security in the United States POW program occurred at Camp Hearne where POWs loyal to the Nazis worked for the German Postal Unit. These POWs forged censor stamps and used already stamped envelopes to send illegal messages. The Nazi POWs also used the information gathered to track down anti-Nazi POWs who had been transferred for safety reasons. | Source: Houston Chronicle View File Details Page

Death Certificate for Hugo Krauss

Death Certificate for Hugo Krauss

POWs loyal to the Nazis assaulted POW Hugo Krauss because of his assistance to the United States. Krauss suffered multiple injuries including a cerebral concussion and a fractured skull, which resulted in his death. | Source: Texas Death Certificates, 1903–1982, Ancestry.com View File Details Page

Audio

POW Heino Erichsen

POW Heino Erichsen describes how he traveled to the United States before arriving at Camp Hearne. In 2001, Erichsen wrote of his experiences as a member of Hitler's Jungvolk (Young Folk), as a member of the Afrika Korps in the 22nd Panzer Grenadiers and as a POW, in his book, "The Reluctant Warrior: Former German POW Finds Peace in Texas." Erichsen was sleeping nearby when fellow POW Hugo Krauss was beaten to death at Camp Hearne. Erichsen returned to Texas in 1953 and became an American citizen in 1958. | Source: Kenneth Crawford, "PostCards From Texas: German POWs: Part One," YouTube.com View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Rachael Larkin, “Hearne Prisoner of War Camp,” East Texas History, accessed June 25, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/157.

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